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London Film Festival 2019 Review - JUST MERCY

just mercy review
A young attorney attempts to prove the innocence of his death row client.

Review by Musanna Ahmed

Directed by: Destin Daniel Cretton

Starring: Michael B. Jordan, Jamie Foxx, Brie Larson, Tim Blake Nelson, Rafe Spall

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Jamie Foxx is a phenomenal dramatic talent. Despite being an Oscar-winner, I still feel like his versatile ability is overlooked - maybe because he clouds his acting career with an effort to be as versatile an entertainer as possible, engaging in stand-up comedy, musicianship, and hosting duties, including for his current Fox TV endeavor 'Beat Shazam'.

just mercy review
Anyway, I felt compelled to write that after witnessing his astonishing feat as the wrongfully imprisoned pulpwood worker Walter "Johnny D" McMillian in Destin Daniel Cretton’s fact-based legal drama Just Mercy. His performance is the best part of the film, closely followed by Michael B. Jordan knocking it out of the park as attorney Bryan Stevenson, who founded the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) and freed Johnny D from a death sentence in his biggest early-career accomplishment.

[ READ MORE: London Film Festival 2019 Review - Jojo Rabbit ]

The director has come a long way since the beautifully authentic Short Term 12 but it seems like he’s lost his identity as a director, as Just Mercy plays like the sort of fine-tuned, studio-polished movie that somebody would more likely take on as an assignment rather than a passion project. Besides the casting of Brie Larson, as Stevenson’s colleague Eva Ansley, to denote this film as Cretton’s own, it looks like the product of any competent director in Hollywood, cleanly designed according to the playbook of making a mainstream Oscar-friendly movie.

just mercy review
This true story is a powerful saga of legal injustice, racial inequality and resilience (McMillian was in prison for six long years), which are all fine aspirations for a work of entertainment to have but the good intentions deserve to be serviced better than what eventually resembles a dozen other courtroom dramas. On the other hand, I see some merit in packaging this deeply sensitive story in a mainstream-friendly parcel for the masses to consume, and the casting of two A-listers at the centre should help it find that target audience.

[ READ MORE: London Film Festival 2019 Review - Waves ]

It would be too easy to dismiss Just Mercy as Oscar bait and also perhaps unkind, because this story should absolutely be told, considering the significance it has for the EJI, who have since helped overturn more than 100 wrongful convictions and continue to work on releasing innocents from death row. Not to forget, the American justice system continues to suffer from related problems so there’s some unfortunate educational value here too. However, a cynical perspective definitely sees this film as an opportunity for its stars to enter the awards conversation this year.

just mercy review
Elsewhere on the London Film Festival bill is Chinonye Chukwu’s death row drama Clemency, which is anchored by two incredible performances by the underappreciated Alfre Woodard and Aldis Hodge. With its more liberating constraints as an indie production, Clemency is far more formally and narratively daring, focusing on the rare perspective of the executioner’s role through its stoic, existentially challenged protagonist and fixing the camera on the actors’ faces for long stretches of time, like Bergman in Autumn Sonata. While Clemency feels like a bona fide festival flick, Just Mercy is more appropriate for a classroom.

Just Mercy plays the London Film Festival October 9th. It will be released in UK/ROI cinemas January 24th, 2020.




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